by Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books 2010
Reviewed by David Sewell
“I wish now to speak plainly about a one-eyed horse.”
I have never read The Da Vinci Code, which I don’t mean to present to you here as an advertisement of my suitability for mating. Or perhaps I do, though I don’t want to give the impression that that’s the only reason I’m mentioning it. But, anyway, having lived in Paris for almost two years now and having seen groups of tourists lugging that estimable work all across this fair city, it occurs to me that the twain must have some connection. It’s possible I could validate this hunch with a few clicks on the computer machine and some time surfing the world wide web, but my ironic coolness depends on my not really knowing, and my ironic coolness is very important, not only to me, but to forces far greater in scope, coherence, and personal hygiene—forces, for all of our sakes, I dare not mention here. So let’s just assume the tourists are not misguided, other than in a sartorial sense, and keep this journey of discovery steaming along.
Slowly, and then somewhat more quickly, then, strangely, slowly again, it occurred to me that my being in Paris, the book-toting tourists’ being here, the deictic opus’s being set here (as far as I know), and my being asked to write a review of a new poetry collection…it was all starting to add up to something. I needed to focus my eyes, or perhaps let them go out of focus completely, or perhaps I just needed a stiff drink, and then what exactly had been carefully hidden out of my view for so long, the big secret that would make all of this make sense would be revealed, like Lindsay Lohan’s underpants as she emerges from the backseat of a chauffeured sedan.
I discovered the path through this forest of intrigue around 1 a.m. one night, walking home through the darkest evening of the year, rain filling up the streets, somewhere near the Louvre, after staying out past the Metro shutting down and having no cab fare after spending all my money on research materials. I had miles to go before I could sleep, so might as well exercise the old cerebrum along with the legs. If you have read TDC, as the cool kids call it, it might be useful at this point for you to think of whichever character is the sandalwood-smelling, furiously handsome one, and imagine me as him. Or him as me—it is really the same thing. I am your hero. Please keep that in mind as we move forward. The fate of all humanity now and in the future could very well depend on it.
Anyway, speaking of reading effluvia, if you’ve ever passed your eyes over any of the handful of reviews I’ve written for this site, I’m frankly surprised that you’re still reading this now. You see, the me that writes poetry reviews is a bit of a dandy, a fancy-pants who pretends to write reviews nominally about the book in consideration but mainly spends an unwarranted amount of time trying to show off some notion of je ne sais quoi, or mateability, that, in the end, really should have been kept concealed beneath the proverbial trench coat. (If, on the other hand, you find yourself captivated by my tarty insouciance and florid scratching style, please do yourself a favor and check out my multivolume doctoral dissertation on the role of trouser pleats in nineteenth-century Romantic poetry, available at some of the finer university libraries in Bhutan and Turkmenistan.)
You might notice, for instance, that we are more than six hundred words into this very review and I’ve yet to say anything even remotely substantive about the book, such as its title or the author’s name. You don’t need me to tell you that life is like that sometimes—not so much a box of chocolates as a long walk home at 1 a.m., with the recurring urge to knock a fellow night denizen off his velocipede as he cycles by, then pedal quickly away, whisking yourself safely home, where there is never a shortage of research materials or anyone telling you you’ve had enough research for one night and will be given no more, or if there is, you are certainly more powerful than her and her puny girl arms. But that is tea for another time, as the man says.
It is at this point that you are probably thinking that the review of the book will begin, but I’m sorry to inform you, dear reader, that is not quite the case. I haven’t even laid out the bare facts of the Da Vinci Code–like case we have on our hands here, the revelation of which I’m sure will shock and excite you in, hopefully, unequal measures. Here it goes: Michael Earl Craig, the putative author of Thin Kimono, goes authorially by three first names, any of which may or may not be his own. Such a situation is unusual in today’s go-go times of acronyms, initializations, and abbreviations, especially as his friends seem to refer to him as Earl (full disclosure: I would like to be his friend). There are any number of reasons why this might be the case, the most prominent of which is that his nom de plume (and, perhaps, de vie) is a sly, tripartite homage to (1) Philip Michael Thomas (also three first names), noted thespian best known for his smoldering turn as Ricardo Tubbs in the ’80s romantic comedy Miami Vice; (2) the Earl of Sandwich or the Second Earl Grey, or possibly both (thus totaling three Earls); and (3) Craig T.(heodore) Nelson (three first names again), noted coach. I once had a Miami Vice Trapper Keeper, every day I eat exactly one sandwich and drink exactly one pot of Earl Grey tea, and one time I saw Mr. Nelson at the airport… This is starting to get spooky.
There is yet another layer at work here, revealed to me late one night after doing extensive research in my kitchen by the light of the moon. You see, no sane individual would ever believe that anyone would say or write a name as long as Michael Earl Craig’s these days. As a thoroughly mateable and ironically cool person, I’m privy to the knowledge that the cool kids nowadays write and say, in their sexting sessions and such, “MEC,” when referring to our mysterious author. Fine, you might be saying to your wife or prostitute or butler, so what? Well, did you know, smart guy, that mec is a word in French, which by some strange coincidence is the official language of the country I currently live in? Weird, I know. And it’s not just any word, either. In French, mec is roughly equivalent to dude in English. (Need I remind you of the original definition of dude—“a non-westerner or city-dweller who tours or stays in the west of the U.S.”—and that Michael Earl Craig was born in the thriving metropolis of Dayton, Ohio, and now summers and winters, as well as springs and falls, in the wild west?)
Cleverly, our thrice-forenamed author has revealed to us his true identity: the dude. A crucial document in the corpus of mysterious symbology behooving us to consider it is the 1998 historical documentary The Big Lebowski, which followed the comings and goings of a Renaissance man and bowling enthusiast who also went by the name of The Dude. Here is some introductory prose from that film, which sums up that dude’s presence rather succinctly:
“…He called himself The Dude. Now, Dude, that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But, then, there was a lot about The Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And a lot about where he lived, likewise. But, then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned innarestin’…. I only mention it ’cause, sometimes there’s a man—I won’t say a hee-ro, ’cause what’s a hee-ro? But sometimes there’s a man…. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here—sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time ’n’ place, he fits right in there—and that’s The Dude…. Sometimes there’s a man…. Sometimes there’s a man. Ah, I lost my train of thought here. But… Aw, hell. I done introduced him enough.”
Indeed. Sometimes there’s a man… Sometimes there’s a man in Montana who shoes horses and writes unadorned poems about extraordinary ordinary things, and all the time this is a good thing for the rest of us. The poems in Thin Kimono (as in his previous two books), for the most part, eschew the sudden jumps or shifts in tone, style, placement, or focus that so many poets today hop around on like a crippled albino being chased by a tiger, perhaps also albino. (The second section, of three, is one long, sectioned poem mostly comprising unconnected images and thoughts presented in somewhat non-sequitur fashion. But there’s plenty of emotional/tonal glue here, and it works.) Most of the poems’ images, lines, and thoughts follow what came before in a natural yet not-obvious way. Nearly everything is connected in a logical and emotional sense. This is sometimes called accessibility. Indeed, even the detours are easy to manage—they feel like normal cognitive diversions, following the mind as it follows a tangent to a related place, then returns to the original train of thought like a cross-country traveler who just needed to stretch his legs on the platform for a second.
On the stylistic level, the poems are most often composed of simple declarative sentences, short in length, without many subordinate clauses or complex constructions. There’s not much enjambment of lines, not many metaphors or much figurative language. Most of the lines end with a period or a comma. There’s nothing really experimental, nothing neo-this or post-that at work here. And yet the poems consistently pop with brightness and originality against a humorous and clever backdrop.
Take, for instance, the poem about the man hanging out at the bottom of the swimming pool to check out (and not in a weird way) two dozen synchronized swimmers as they practice. Or the three poems about being at an acupuncturist’s. Or the two about lying on a hotel bed. The poems here are about small things: talking to his grandmother on the phone, visiting New York City, riding on an airplane, shoeing a horse. The poem “Windsor” begins, “I wish now to speak plainly about a one-eyed horse.” Then, for the rest of the poem, he talks plainly about a one-eyed horse. That is more or less how these poems work. One does not have to consult the etchings on Bruncvik’s Sword or stare intently at a pair of Leonardo’s used underpants during a penumbral lunar eclipse to unlock the secrets here, or to fully enjoy these poems for all that they are and aren’t. “Trying again I wrote / in capital letters THE READER / CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY / AND STILL GET MY POEMS,” he writes in “Bluebirds.” Empirically, I can attest to that statement’s truth.
The source material Craig draws from is the same available to anyone else, but the results transcend the standard product. He talks often about things he sees in the newspaper, on TV, while driving his automobile. It’s through the peculiar alchemy that occurs in the writer’s/speaker’s head that these everyday scenes and situations become something of a more precious nature—to quote “After a Terrifying Nap”: “Not golden like a bar of gold / (an ingot) / or golden like honey / or paint on a football helmet. / It was another kind of gold.” That poem is about a golden grasshopper that falls into a car and comes to rest, next to a potato chip, on the floor in the backseat, below a soundly napping infant. That’s all that happens, really, yet the poet somehow arrives at, “The grasshopper sent forth a golden light. / The infant awoke in his car seat, / looked at the grasshopper / and wiggled his feet, his white socks.”
It’s worthwhile mentioning the sort-of shorthand poetics found in “Poem (The nitwit danced…)”: “To those people who are always talking about ‘surrealism’ / can I suggest you open your fucking eyes? / If you do this, you will see mothballs. And a green nightgown.” I think the point here is less whether these poems do or do not trade in surrealism than that such discussions are inherently less interesting than what one can see by simply opening one’s eyes and looking around. Ultimately, it’s what Craig sees, and how he sees it, that makes these poems work so well. “Clear writing is clear thinking,” he writes in “Humans.” The obvious danger in such perspicuity is that stripping away all the stylistic and poetic drapery is a bit like being naked in front of a crowded room of insurance salesmen: there’s nothing to conceal one’s human frailties from their prying, insatiable eyes. That Michael Earl Craig’s poems are continually as lean, well-proportioned, and finely chiseled as that other Renaissance giant, Michelangelo’s David (no relation), proves he has nothing at all to hide.